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Myanmar monasteries offer bootcamp for the spirit

Pre-dawn wake-up calls, days of silence and hunger may not be everyone's idea of a holiday, but for tourists seeking spiritual sustenance Myanmar's monasteries offer help on the path to Buddhist nirvana.

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(STR/AFP/Getty Images)

The search for inner peace is unlikely to appeal to those who take a more hedonistic approach to vacations -- booze, beaches and bikinis are definitely out.

"When you first start it is a bit like running into a brick wall, you know, you are having extreme problems settling down and for your mind to settle," said Rupert Arrowsmith, a British art historian.

He spent 45 days of total silence in the "famously austere" Chanmyay Yeiktha monastery, a peaceful compound of rooms for meditation and sleeping in the countryside near Yangon.

"The new environment, different way of dressing, different way of eating... It's like some sort of military bootcamp. You've even got the same hairstyle," he told AFP.

After their heads are shaved at an ordination ceremony, new monks - foreign or Burmese -- retreat to the quiet but challenging routine of monastic life.

Rising at 3:30 a.m., they practise sitting and walking meditation for the majority of the day, spending long periods cross-legged in the complex, which is largely silent apart from the sound of birdsong.

Food, though often sumptuous dishes such as local curries, is served before noon. The last meal of the day at Chanmyay Yeiktha is at 10:30 a.m. and monks have nothing more to eat before they retire to bed in the evening to sleep in individual rooms on a bed with no mattress.

Arrowsmith urged those entering a monastery to "be serious... this is not Disneyland", but he said the experience -- his second at the monastery – was worth it.

"It's more or less essential for anybody who wants to understand how their own mind functions. I mean this is probably the key point for people in the West," he said.

"You know people who talk about self knowledge, they really need to come and do some Vipassana meditation in Myanmar," he said.

After years as an international pariah under the former junta, Myanmar is stepping firmly back onto the Southeast Asia tourist trail under a new reformist regime that came to power in 2011.

With thousands of monasteries and a regional reputation for being spiritually devout, the country hopes to attract visitors interested in Buddhist practice.

Phyoe Wai Yar Zar, of the Myanmar Tourism Board, said visas for meditation visits can now be "easily" obtained and that spiritual tourism is on the rise – although authorities are currently unable to provide hard data.

Striving for nirvana

Both men and women can enter monasteries from two weeks up to several months.

Across the border in Thailand, an established destination for spiritual tourists, Buddhist authorities say some 1,000 people from abroad join monasteries for meditation stints every year, while about 50 foreigners are fully ordained as monks annually.

Abbot Bhaddanta Jatila of the Mahasi Meditation Centre in Yangon said foreign visits dried up as the country came to the end of its near half-century of military rule.

"When the government opened, more foreign meditators came. Many of them are coming now, especially this year," he said.

A whole wing of accommodation has been set aside for foreign visitors at his monastery, which recently had about 20 people from Korea, Japan, China and the United States among its 500 meditators and child novices.

Paradoxically, the rise in foreign meditators could result in villagers in one of the world's poorest countries feeding visitors from rich nations.

Monasteries rely for food and funding on local people, who believe their donations earn them "merit" and karmic reward in the cycle of rebirth that is a key part of Buddhist faith.

Arrowsmith said the sight of impoverished local people donating precious supplies of rice was "quite difficult to accept", but that his abbot assured him that donors were giving the food not to him as an individual, but "for the potential for enlightenment in you" as a monk.

Myanmar's Buddhist clergy has faced international scrutiny amid extremist anti-Muslim campaigns by some monks that have been linked to recent deadly waves of violence in the Buddhist-majority country.

But Arrowsmith said this should not taint the Buddhist establishment as a whole.

"Personally, I have never experienced Myanmar monks getting involved in anything other than intensive meditation, non-violence, and the issuance of goodwill to all living beings," he said.

Meditation, detachment and loving kindness are just some aspects of the quest for nirvana -- and freedom from the suffering of perpetual reincarnation.

Abbot Bhaddanta Jatila said Buddhism helps practitioners to rise above a cycle of life that "starts with being in the mother's womb, then involves getting old, ill and dead".

That search for release was particularly appealing to 36-year-old Shigenari Moriya, whose path from working in the stock market in Japan, to entering the Mahasi centre in Yangon was dominated by a battle with cancer.

Attracted to Myanmar because its meditation practice was "directly inherited" from Buddha, he was unperturbed by the drastic change to his lifestyle.

"I like the sunshine, the food is delicious and above all, I'm happy meditating here because I believe that the country has more dharma (truth) than any other place on the planet," he told AFP.

Having initially planned to be a monk for three months, Moriya said he was now unsure whether he would ever go back to his old life.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130729/myanmar-monasteries-offer-bootcamp-the-spirit